When people become alarmed due to a problem with food safety, they make a logical demand: that the food involved be quickly taken off the market. But this is not easy to do because of the intricate commercial circuits that food usually follows between manufacture and sale.
Everybody probably remembers the food crisis brought about by mad cow disease or by the presence of dioxin in food. An enormous management effort was required to be able to withdraw huge amounts of food only because it came from a certain country. And this just because it became impossible to identify only the foods involved. This job would have been made simpler with adequate traceability.
Certain information has to be available to carry out traceability on foods, such as: what business produced it? Which batch is involved? And what route has been used to market it?
The goal of what is known as traceability is to be able to answer all of these questions when applied to food, by using the label or the accompanying documents. That is, to make it is possible to follow the traces and find any food product.
But, how is traceability managed in practice? Let us look at the example of beef, the first food product for which it became compulsory. Traceability begins in farms, which must register their animals. They must be identified in documents and by using plastic tags that are attached to their ears and must remain there until the animal is taken to be slaughtered. When the meat leaves the slaughterhouse, it is marked with the bar codes that identify the establishment and correlate the meat with the farm it originated from. Afterwards, the cutting plants must add their identification number. And finally the butcher must display the meat with all of these labels.
Although the European Union wishes all the food sectors to establish correct traceability, this is difficult to put into practice. In the first place, because it requires the different agents that produce, transform, distribute and sell foodstuffs to participate. In the second place, because businesses must manage complex identification, registration, documentation and labelling systems. These difficulties transform traceability into a goal for food agents. The challenge is not only in putting it into practice, but in achieving that the methods it is based on are workable and economically feasible for the businesses involved and that, as far as possible, they do not turn into an added cost for consumers.
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